The Continental Army had suffered crushing defeats in the Southern Colonies. General George Washington had seen one army captured in the Siege of Charleston and another one destroyed in the Battle of Camden. The morale of the war in the south was not good to say the least. However, there was one bright spot and that was Nathanael Greene.
Nathanael Greene was a former Quaker from Rhode Island who had served in the Rhode Island militia as a young man and had managed to rise through the ranks on his own merit. He was a brilliant tactician and a great administrator. He served George Washington as a Quartermaster General. Although Greene preferred it on the battlefield he served well and re-organized the supply lines of the Continental Army. When, General Horatio Gates fled from battle and then replaced by Greene.
When Greene arrived the situation was bleak. The army was in shambles, supply lines were terrible, morale was at an all-time low and General Cornwallis was in hot pursuit. However, Greene revitalized the army and brilliantly split the army in two to help supply it. He would command one wing and the other would be commanded by Daniel Morgan.
Daniel Morgan was a rugged frontiersman that had been in the army since the French and Indian War. He served valiantly and was captured in the Battle of Quebec and was an influential part in the Battle of Saratoga. He was a creative commander who understood how to use militia properly and nowhere is it seen better than in the Battle of Cowpens against Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton.
Banastre Tarleton and the Green Dragoons
The British had been in pursuit for some time and looked to destroy Greene and his men. General Cornwallis followed suit with Greene and split his forces into two with him leading one division and the other under the command of Tarleton.
Banastre Tarleton was known for how ruthless he was. He had killed many men who were surrendering at the Battle of Waxhaws and his very name struck fear with many of the locals. He was not liked, but he was very successful. He commanded the Dragoons and was able to meet at a quick pace. He followed Morgan and caught up with him quickly, except Morgan was prepared for him.
General Daniel Morgan’s Plan
In the Battle of Cowpens, Morgan came up with one of the most original ideas of the war and was one of the first commanders to use militia correctly. Morgan knew exactly where Tarleton was, which gave him time to study the terrain of Cowpens and develop a strategy that not only fit his men, but would also fit the terrain. He decided that he would place his army between the Broad River and Pacolet River making it impossible for the Continentals to retreat. This would also help his militia units to stay in the field and not run from battle which is what happened at the Battle of Camden.
Morgan then made three lines. The first line was marksmen from Georgia and North Carolina and would be a line of skirmishers. These men would have immediate effects on Tarleton’s men by firing at them with their rifles, then fading into the second line. The second line was militia with one small line of militia slightly in front. This line would help protect the skirmishers from bayonets. Morgan ordered them to fire at the British and target the officers. Once a couple of volleys were fired they were to retreat behind the third line and regroup. This was the key to Morgan’s strategy. The third line was Morgan’s regulars and behind them was William Washington’s cavalry.
As expected Tarleton came rolling into the Battle of Cowpens and quickly formed a line and attack Morgan headfirst. Tarleton’s brashness would play right into the “Old Waggoners” hands.
Tarleton’s men were quickly met with deadly fire from the skirmishers. The British regrouped and charged forward again, this time meeting the second line of militiamen and sharpshooters. The British were once again hit hard and many of their officers fell to the ground. Still, they regrouped (similar to the Battle of Bunker Hill) and charged forward and were once again met with heavy fire. Once the second volley was complete the militia retreated behind the third line and Tarleton’s Dragoons attacked them in retreat but were repelled by William Washington’s Calvary.
The British were now exhausted and utterly spent, but they were still face-to-face with the General Daniel Morgan’s regulars. Tarleton who would not go down so easily located the Highlanders in reserve and ordered them to charge. The Highlanders were met with fierce fire and the Continentals were ordered to form a redoubt and face the Highlanders head on. The order was misinterpreted and Morgan’s army began to retreat.
General Daniel Morgan rode forward and reformed the line. The Continentals fired one devastating volley and then charged with bayonet. The British were defeated. The Battle of Cowpens lasted about an hour. It was a sound American defeat.
The Battle of Cowpens was the turning point of the war in the South. It destroyed an entire wing of Cornwallis and left him vulnerable. He would then pursue Nathanael Greene with reckless abandon. It would end in at Guilford Courthouse which would devastate Cornwallis and force him to retreat to Yorktown.
After the Battle of Cowpens, General Daniel Morgan requested that he be allowed to leave the army. He suffered from a serious case of sciatica which left him crippled at times. Greene would oblige him and give him much honor upon retiring.